James Haddrell on censorship and funding

Hannah Lavery’s three-performer play Protest, which I managed to catch at Brixton House during its brief London run, is a heartfelt and successful rallying cry for young people, and particularly young girls, to embrace the power of activism.

James Haddrell, artistic director of Greenwich Theatre

Alice, played by Kirsty MacLaren, is a runner. That is, she loves to run, she runs everywhere, and she knows that she is the fastest in her class. So why do the boys keep getting chosen for the best places in the class relay team?

Jade (Harmony Rose-Bremner) loves her town, or she did until her life was turned upside-down by racist bullying. Even with the support of the school in uncovering and celebrating her heritage, why do some people seem determined to put her down?

Meanwhile, Chloe (Amy Murphy) is dealing with the knowledge that her absent father has a new family, and finds solace in clearing up the litter in the local woodland, but why do people keep messing it up?

What starts as three disparate stories told in isolation gradually turns into a story of three contemporaries coming together and fighting for the things they believe in. With three strong performances driving the show and slick direction by Natalie Ibu, Protest has the pace to hold a young audience and three completely relatable storytellers to carry them through the narrative (as well as a great online programme full of reference points for aspiring young activists).

This is a great example of the power of live theatre to inspire and to empower young people – and it comes during a week of controversy around the provision of public funding for political art.

New guidance issued last week by Arts Council England for existing and prospective grant holders advised them to be wary of “overtly political or activist” work, or of making their political views public or allowing artists working with them to do the same, suggesting that it could lead to reputational damage and ultimately to a withdrawal of funding.

This was met by an immediate backlash from artists across the country. The arts have always offered a forum for political activism, and there is often a natural affinity between the two – from music and song to the written word and live drama – so to have it suggested that the country’s leading government avenue for support for the arts would reject support for political artists came as a shock to the industry.

Equity, the industry body for the arts made up of 50,000 performers and creative practitioners, issued a statement saying: “We are deeply concerned that the effect of Arts Council England’s new guidance for funded organisations will be to censor the work that organisations produce and present, and most worryingly, attempt to silence artists both on stage and in their personal lives – especially those working in the activist or political space.”

To consider a funded arts sector where the creators of work like Protest, which at its heart is empowering for young people, are at risk of having to second-guess the work they make, is deeply worrying. It is unlikely that any of the issues raised by the play would ever become red flags for the funder, but as soon as a structure built on censorship exists there’s a framework and a set of criteria that can evolve, and then artists find themselves managed by the shifting views of politicians, rather than free to use their practice to explore and challenge the world we live in. We can only hope that the protests being raised by the industry lead to a more comprehensive change in the Arts Council’s view.

Picture: Protest, Brixton House Theatre © Mihaela Bodlovic

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